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Orlando Sentinel

Commonwealth's 50th Year Stirs Serious Protests

By Iván Román

February 10, 2002
Copyright © 2002
Orlando Sentinel. All Rights Reserved.

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- There are no roses or champagne on this golden anniversary.

If the start of the 50th anniversary of the island's controversial Commonwealth political status is any indication, we're in for a hot "celebration."

Fifty years ago last Tuesday, the Puerto Rican Legislature approved the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, known in Spanish as the Estado Libre Asociado, or Free Associated State. After Congress took out some parts, it was ratified locally on July 25, the island's official holiday.

Tuesday's pomp and circumstance came and went without much of a hubbub. The swearing in of a commission to put forth a series of events during the year got little news coverage.

But shouts of protest were heard with the first government commemoration -- new license plates with the Puerto Rican and U.S. flags, which proclaim: "Puerto Rico 50th Anniversary, 1952-2002."

Lawmakers joked about the new plates on the shiny 2002 Mercury Grand Marquis the Senate just assigned to pro-statehood Sen. Miriam Ramirez de Ferrer, one of the Commonwealth status' fiercest enemies. Pro-independence activists vow to go to court to stop the 120,000 plates from getting on new cars this year.

"This is an abuse of power," said pro-independence Sen. Fernando Martin. "It's unconstitutional to impose on citizens the obligation to publicly exhibit the symbols of a political ideology in which they do not believe."

Government officials insist it's not about propaganda but about commemorating what Puerto Rico is. "I didn't think this would be front page news," scoffed Jose Izquierdo, secretary of transportation and public works.

Puerto Ricans on the island know that talking about political status is always controversial. Imagine what celebrating it with floating billboards would evoke.

The Commonwealth status emerged after politicians in Washington, which valued the island for its strategic military importance, told restless Puerto Ricans in the 1940s that statehood and independence were not options.

After Congress made amendments, local leaders ratified the constitution in 1952, which gives the island fiscal autonomy, but leaves foreign relations, immigration and control of most other matters to Congress and the U.S. government. U.S. citizens since 1917, Puerto Ricans don't pay federal taxes, have no voting representatives in Congress and are subject to being drafted into the military.

While it receives billions of dollars in federal aid, the island has been important for military interests and for U.S. corporations, which have reaped billions in profits thanks to cheap wages and tax breaks.

Calling it "the best of both worlds," the Commonwealth's defenders say it has guided Puerto Ricans politically from abject poverty to industrialization while allowing people to maintain their identity and culture. Its critics say it condemned the island to being one of the oldest colonies in the world.

Now -- 50 years, three plebiscites and three aggressive pro-statehood governors later -- new administrations in Washington and San Juan have kept the issue stuck in neutral.

Several Washington politicians say islanders should agree on status changes before knocking on their doors. But some statehooders say the U.S., which created the problem when it invaded and kept the island after the Spanish-American War in 1898, should say what it's willing to give.

Pro-Commonwealth Gov. Sila Calderon said until there is a consensus on the island about what mechanism to use to solve the problem, going to Washington is a waste of time.

President Clinton's order to create a status commission, signed shortly before leaving office, is collecting dust in President Bush's desk drawers. A commission that Calderon pledged to create to reach that consensus is also on hold, although an announcement may come during the 50th-anniversary celebration July 25.

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